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A Prodigious Crop of Ballads

The past few weeks I’ve been trying to explain how we on the Great Plains are so fortunate to have a prodigious crop of ballads and folksongs dating from the settlement generation and its children.

The songs were of a new sort, too. Old-fashioned balladry such as we associate with old-country singers or Appalchian balladeers was hyper-traditional. It emphasized getting it right, passing along the legacy of folksong intact, every syllable and grace note. Prairie balladeers parted ways with tradition even while building upon it. As the Nebraska scholar Lousie Pound was the first to argue, they were creative folk artists, generating new songs and new versions right and left.

Newspapers were key to this effusion, encouraging and propagating it. Every country town along the railroad had a newspaper, maybe two three, thriving on the legally required publication of homestead notices. They needed copy. When a local singer brought in a song, they were happy to publish it. Singers knew this, so they kept producing and enjoyed the local attention.

The exchange system was another source of copy for short-staffed country papers. They exchanged current issues and copied one another’s stories, usually with credit. The railroad system made the exchange swift--meaning that ballads spread quickly from depot to depot. Everywhere they went, they were seized and adapted to a new locality.

Because not only were Americans of the settlement generation on the plains enthusiastic singers, they were literate. They read their papers, and they delighted in poetic contributions, refined or rough-hewn.

This is why I have in my collection, by the grace of digitized newspaper archives, more than fifty versions of “Little Old Sod Shanty on the Claim,” by which I can chart its progress across the plains from the 1880s to the early 1900s. Ground zero for the song was western Kansas, but singers in Beaver County, Oklahoma, in Emmons County, North Dakota, and all over the plains picked it up. This self-effacing lament is truly the anthem of the settlement generation.

Songcatchers like Pound of Nebraska, Franz Rickaby of North Dakota, or John Lomax of Texas only captured snapshots from the moving, singing picture of prairie life. There was much more out there than they knew.

The social scene of prairie settlement nurtured ballad development. Town life was exceedingly social, with endless public events from study clubs to oyster suppers stirring the scene.

Whereas today school events dominate the community marquee, in the settlement generation adult events filled the social calendar and the newspaper columns. Homegrown theater, music, dancing, competitions, and debate flourished. It seems to me that bachelors--young men being conspicuous and active on the frontier--were particularly important in juicing up the social scene.

Country life was hardly a matter of isolation, either. For immigrant farmers, country churches were the locus of culture as well as worship. More generally, country schoolhouses were places for box socials, spelling bees, and most notably, literary society meetings, commonly referred to as just “the literary.”

Possibly because the schoolteachers were eligible young women, literaries were frequented by bachelor farmers who sought social acceptance by joining into recitations and debates--and not infrequently, standing up to render a homely ballad, perhaps one mourning the lack of feminine companionship on a homestead claim. Who knows how many lonely hearts were connected through stanzas delivered by an ardent balladeer in overalls?

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